David Ayers Reviews Nathalie Handal’s Love and Strange Horses

Love and Strange Horses

Love and Strange Horses, by Nathalie Handal
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)

What do horses mean in dreams?
What is the significance of horse sacrifice, a dream?
What did someone someone say about memory and desire once? Who was it—Emerson?

These are the kinds of questions that I pondered as I made my way through this new collection of poetry from Nathalie Handal, Love and Strange Horses. I suppose these are probably not the normal sorts of questions one would have on reading a book of poetry for the first time, but who can say what normal is? Anyway, I was on airplane, it was a long flight, and this was a generous book. I read it again on the return flight. And then again after I landed. And then a few more times after I got back home.

Through all these readings, the prevailing sense I got from Love and Strange Horses is one of mystery. The book is quixotic, quizzical. Handal’s horses run rampant across landscapes strange and foreign, from Latin America to the Levant, from India to the Caribbean, from Oklahoma to France (these last two maybe only figuratively, but still). They touch on themes that are puzzling and murky: music and numbers, love and sex, desire, language, the body, time. Memory (both private and shared memory) is especially prominent. As Handal writes in “Flames at Hurr Mountain:”

History has a way of
moving the heart backward.

A way of moving it forward
to protect its past, its tired mind.

A few lines later she goes on to elaborate: “It’s loud. It’s narrow. It’s quiet./ This is something we know—it stirs.”

With all the stirring and wandering in Love and Strange Horses, it might be easy to get lost. “Disoriented” might be a better word—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But Handal has a good idea of where she is going in this collection, and in the book’s three major divisions—Intima’, Elegía Erótica, and Terre Música—she provides the outline of a structure to help the reader navigate. The titles are suggestive, and I suppose there are several different ways of reading them—as the past-present-future of history, as phases of psychological development, as movements in a musical composition, or any similar triad. There are probably merits to all these different types of readings, but the way that I prefer to read the book is actually quite simple: as a basic narrative where the parts stand for beginning-middle-end. Or to put it more provocatively, anticipation-climax-denouement.

You can see this progression running in parallel across several of the collection’s major themes. There is an arc of romance (or romances), an arc of relationships, an arc of history (both the private history and the world’s history), even an arc of numbers. I found this last one particularly fascinating. After preparing us for the numerical theme in the first part of the book (in sectional poems such as “The Hawk Quartet”, “Country of Days”, and “Love and Strange Horses—Intima’“), Handal continues in this vein in the middle section, expanding on it. “The Bulgarian Orchestra” is a notable example, worth quoting in its entirety:

You touch my dimples
after the first aria,
tell me what you are about to do
when the music is at its highest.
Nineteen beats before
you finish describing
where we will enter,
nineteen beats before
your throat gets dry
and your eyes turn a shade of red,
nineteen beats before
you put your hands under my skirt,
nineteen beats before
the walls get wet,
nineteen beats before our fall,
we move deep into what
we will do to each other.

It’s here that we first see mention of the number nineteen, which will figure prominently in the final section of the book, in such poems as “The Songmaker—19 Arabics” and “19 Harbors.” This last section also includes the poem “Black Butterflies, A Lost Tango,” where we are told that “nineteen is the infinite.” The number is hugely important in the Qur’an, and these poems obviously play on that connection. But there is a subversive element too. For example, in “The Songmaker—19 Arabics,” the title refers to 19 different Arabic words for love, which are all given voice in the poem, along with some heady ruminations about music, mythology, religion, and language. There is something almost Blakean in all this, that I haven’t quite put my finger on. But the poem definitely resonates in its final lines: “Who said we need to be strangers,/ when we listen to the same music?”

Despite the three-part structure of Love and Strange Horses and the relative order that it imposes, the poems themselves are hardly linear. This is a good thing. Instead of seeing a bunch of narrative poems in a strict chronological sequence, you see a lot of formal experimentation, a lot of variety. The collection includes short lyrics, prose poems, list poems, concrete poems, and several long poetic “sequences”. Handal’s style also ranges quite a bit—from oblique to direct to lyrical, depending on the mood and the nature of the poem. The style will often even shift within an individual poem, as in “The Meadows,” which opens with a sequence of lines that is a bit vertigo-inducing in its intensity:

Lover, you leave want even on chairs, murmur words in languages you
don’t know.

You play chess.

Wrap the only melody left around you, knock back the only whiskey
left from the blue glass, and let your body sway in mid-air
so that the wind can run its breath on your neck.

This movement from the abstract to the concrete (and then back), reinforced in the back-and-forth of the lines, gives the poem has an almost hallucinogenic, dreamlike quality. The poem ends suggestively, with an image that seems meant to turn the reader/subject back to that initial “want:”

You touch yourself to remember the meadows, what they felt like
inside you.

For all the stylistic flourishes and formal experimentation, you also get the impression that Love and Strange Horses is deeply personal, and eclectic in the way the personal tends to be. Literary and artistic influences abound, as varied and idiosyncratic as the poems. There are epigraphs from Borges, Lorca, MacNiece, Augustine, and Voltaire; tributes to Darwish, Akhmatova, and O’Keeffe. And then there are the relationships that we read about in the collection. They feel intense, pivotal—relationships between lovers, between the speaker and her lovers—recounted in poems such as “Ahmad,” “Javier,” “Corriendo,” and the like. Whether the situations recounted in these poems are real or imaginary (or magi-real, an embellishment, some combination of them both) they have the vitality of the real, and as such, they form some of the strongest poems in the book. “Ahmad” is probably my favorite among these. Here is a representative passage:

When you come
a current will run through our chills,
God will arrive seven times,
seven times
we will not see his face.

You are burning inside my mind
like nothing else I’ve known.
When are you coming?

And another, this from the close:

I say your name softly,
Ahmad Ahmad
to disturb the loneliness.

And what about those horses? Well I’m still working on that one. It’s probably something that as a reviewer I will never fully figure out—though to be honest about it, as a reader I’m not sure I really care. Horses are mysterious—erotic, passionate, mythical, sublime creatures. They are probably the perfect animal and perfect symbol for poems like these, that seem to elude determination, that entice and wander and roam. I don’t really feel like I need to catch them so much as watch them, maybe try to ride them, get thrown off. And that’s the nature of reading, isn’t it? If you enjoy reading as much as I do, and enjoy reading poetry that challenges your thinking, that makes your synapses fire and the brain’s pleasure center sortof stand up and go Oooh, then I highly recommend Love and Strange Horses. It’s one for the frequent flyer.

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